Low-stakes testing


Low-stakes testing involves the frequent use of evaluation instruments that have little impact on a student's course grade. Two examples of low-stakes testing include:

  • the use of clickers in class, and
  • mastery-learning quizzing systems in which students are able to repeatedly take quizzes on specific topics until they master the material.

An overwhelming body of evidence from studies in cognitive science, psychology, economics, physics, chemistry, math, and many other disciplines indicates that students learn most effectively when frequent opportunities to recall and attempt to apply the knowledge they have acquired. Roediger (2013) provides a summary of the cognitive psychological research on this issue. He notes that student learning is enhanced by frequent practice, and this is most effective when the practice is distributed across time and across tasks.

     In his study of effective college teachers, Ken Bain (2004) states:

Because the best teachers believe that most students can learn, they look for ways to help them to do so. They ask how they  can encourage students to think aloud and create a nonthreatening atmosphere in which they can do so. They seek ways to give students the opportunity to struggle with their thoughts without facing assessments of their efforts, to try, to come up short, receive feedback on their efforts, and try again before facing any "grading."

The key element of low-stakes testing is that students be given the opportunity to try, make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes with little or no penalty. While this notion seems foreign to many college instructors, consider how we train athletes. They do not spend much time sitting in classrooms, listening to lectures about how to play their sport. Instead, they practice specific skills, make mistakes, and are given suggestions on how to improve their skills.  (For an amusing take on this issue see this video.)


Bain, Ken (2004). What the Best College Professors Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Roediger III, Henry L. (2013). "Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education: Translational Educational Science" Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14(1) 1-3


"Low-stakes testing in Blackboard Learn" - John Kane, January 20, 2017